Energy Futures Lab Fellowship Program Is Transformational

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Deanna Burgart is an aboriginal woman who completed a challenging program in engineering technology, while still a single mother. She then completed an engineering degree when she and her husband were raising two children, while also experiencing the ups and downs of a 20-year career in the oil and gas and renewables industry.

Burgart now runs her own Calgary-based consulting firm, called Indigenous Engineering Inclusion Inc., which offers consulting, training, speaking engagements and other services aimed at improving Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations. Given that background, she is a good judge of the effectiveness of a program aimed at improving communication among and collaboration between the dozens of players involved in the energy sector.

And the SAIT technology and Lakehead University engineering graduate calls the Energy Futures Lab (EFL) Fellowship program “transformative.”

“There’s a perception that in Alberta the attitude is ‘drill, baby drill,’” said Burgart, who speaks often throughout North America about Indigenous consultation and other issues. “The fact that this Alberta-based initiative is talking about integrating Indigenous reasoning into business decisions and about a low-carbon future surprises some people.”

The initiative she refers to is the Energy Futures Lab (EFL), a social innovation lab launched by The Natural Step Canada, a two decade-old organization aimed at accelerating the transition to a sustainable society and economy. 

The EFL initiative is aimed at helping Alberta, Canada’s fossil fuel energy centre, play a crucial role in helping the country transition to an economy and a society that can continue to thrive in a lower carbon-emitting world.  

In the EFL vision, energy continues to be a source of prosperity for Alberta and the country, with the province’s energy know-how playing a vital role in that transition.

At the centre of the process are the Energy Futures Lab Fellows, who are helping to shape that future.

For Burgart, who became a Fellow two years ago, joining about 60 others, the exercise has been life-altering.

“The process encourages you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” she said. “We need to realize that we are all part of the energy system, whether we work in it or not.”

One key tool the Natural Step organizers use is what it calls “The Newtonian Shift Simulation,” which allows participants to experience decades of energy transition in one day. It is aimed at building energy system understanding, while also helping participants relate to others involved in the energy system, from environmental groups like the Pembina Institute, technology venture agencies like Alberta Innovates, to executives with renewables companies and those with oil and gas firms.

Through ongoing meetings and retreats Fellows “get to think beyond their usual roles” to have a better understanding of who the players are in the entire energy system.

“The level of respect between Fellows is something I’ve never experienced before,” she said.

Prior to becoming involved as a Fellow, thanks to a bursary she received, conversations and attitudes about energy, like much in the world today, were divisive, she said.

“I felt there were so many polarized conversations,” she said. “The EFL Fellowship exercise includes a willingness to bring in different viewpoints.”

Her late father (she was adopted and raised by a non-Indigenous family) was an engineer, which influenced her career choice. After seeing the 2000 movie about the experience of environmental crusader Erin Brockovich, Burgart became much more passionate about and committed to environmental causes. However, the consultant, who was born on a First Nation community in Fond-du-Lac, Sask., was also a realist, recognizing that environmental sustainability and the energy industry could exist with a degree of harmony.

Given her credentials as an engineer with a deep understanding of most parts of the energy industry, as well as having her roots in Indigenous culture, she believes the EFL Fellowship program has allowed her to help non-Indigenous energy sector players better understand the role Indigenous people want to play in the industry.

“It has been an amazing experience for me,” she said. “The people (Fellows) make it what it is.”

Meera Nathwani-Crowe is another Fellow, with an extensive energy industry background, who values the EFL Fellowship experience.

Nathwani-Crowe, who is Manager of Technology and Innovation with Canadian Natural Resources Limited and who has held various senior positions with other companies, in health & safety, environmental management and other roles, joined in the first cohort of Fellows when the program was launched three years ago.

Supported by several sources, including The Natural Step Canada and the Suncor Energy Foundation, she said she played a role in establishing the Fellowship because she and others involved in the energy sector believed it was time for different participants to start talking to one another.

“It is a social innovation process [because] it has brought together diverse stakeholders, all of whom are well informed in their roles, ranging from Indigenous community representatives to housing developers to those involved in the fossil fuel sector,” she said. “The energy sector tends to be very siloed and those in it don’t get opportunities to talk to others outside their immediate areas. The EFL Fellowship program is like a beaker, where chemicals are allowed to react.”

She said there are many misconceptions about the various energy industry players.

There is not such a big gap between those involved in the solar power sector and the fossil fuel industry, for example, even though it’s generally assumed there is. They are both involved in the production of energy.

The multi-stakeholder approach encompassed by the Fellowship program can lead to conclusions — what she calls “paths” — that would not otherwise be contemplated, she said.

In the end, she said developing an energy future path “is all about our children’s future.”

“I would love to see these kinds of conversations occur beyond the Fellowship program, throughout Canada,” she said.

Fellows are selected by the Energy Futures Lab team. They can be nominated by other individuals or by the companies they work for. There is a cost involved in belonging (of a few thousand dollars a year).

“That [the cost] shows that there is a commitment involved,” she said. “It’s not just a social club.”

Aside from the regular get-togethers, the Fellowship program spawns what are called “prototypes” — experimental initiatives or research projects. These have ranged from an initiative looking at the use of hydrogen for transportation, to a biojet program (in co-operation with WestJet), to a bitumen-beyond-combustion project, which investigated the various products that might be produced with bitumen, beyond fuel.

The existing EFL Fellows and those who become involved in the future will be engaged in what The Natural Step Canada is calling EFL 2.0, which will deepen EFL’s activity in Alberta and nationally. Innovators, leaders and influencers from across the province are being encouraged to apply to become Fellows, via a transparent, easy-to-follow application process.

The application period began on Dec. 10 and extends until Jan. 31.

Those wishing to become involved can go to the EFL Fellow website at energyfutureslab.com/fellowship/